The Sin Unto Death

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It is written:

1 John 5:16-17-If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. 17  All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death.

How should we understand this passage of Scripture?

What is the “death” that this passage is talking about?

What is sin which does not lead to death?

What is sin which leads to death?

Let’s study.

The text of Scripture is written to Christians. John makes this clear by his use of the word “brother” and related terms throughout 1 John (cf. 1 John 2:9, 10, 11; 3:1, 12, 14, 15, 17; 4:2-, 21). These were spiritual brethren in that they had overcome the power of Satan through Jesus (1 John 2:13) and have been forgiven (1 John 2:12; 5:13). I emphasize this because some teach that John’s use of brethren is focusing on ethnicity, I.e., they teach that John is writing to a predominantly Jewish audience. However, the text clearly focuses on Christians who are from a wide background of national descent (cf. 1 John 2:1-2).

John addresses a situation where there is a distinction made between sin that leads to death, and sin that does not lead to death. Some have suggested that-because all sin leads to spiritual death (cf. Isaiah 59:1-2; Romans 6:23)-the sin under discussion here is sin which leads to a death that is capital punishment.

“Furthermore, God warns that sin can lead to physical death! “All unrighteousness is sin,” but some sin is worse than other sin. All sin is hateful to God, and should be hateful to a believer; but some sin is punished with death. John told us (1 John 5: 16–17) about the case of a brother (a believer) whose life was taken because of sin. The Bible mentions people who died because of their sin. Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron the priest, died because they deliberately disobeyed God (Lev. 10: 1–7). Korah and his clan opposed God and died (Num. 16). Achan was stoned because he disobeyed Joshua’s orders from God at Jericho (Josh. 6—7). A man named Uzzah touched the ark and God killed him (2 Sam. 6). “But those are Old Testament examples!” someone may argue. “John was writing to New Testament believers, who live under grace!” To whom much is given, much shall be required. A believer today has a far greater responsibility to obey God than did the Old Testament saints. We have a complete Bible, we have the full revelation of God’s grace, and we have the Holy Spirit living within us to help us obey God. But there are cases in the New Testament of believers who lost their lives because they disobeyed God. Ananias and Sapphira lied to God about their offering, and they both died (Acts 5: 1–11). Some believers at Corinth died because of the way they had acted at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11: 30). And 1 Corinthians 5: 1–5 suggests that a certain offender would have died had he not repented and confessed his sin (2 Cor. 2: 6–8). If a believer does not judge, confess, and forsake sin, God must chasten him. This process is described in Hebrews 12: 1–13, which suggests that a person who does not subject himself to the Father will not live (v. 9). In other words, first God “spanks” his rebellious children, and if they do not yield to His will, He may remove them from the world lest their disobedience lead others astray and bring further disgrace to His name. “The sin unto death” is not one specific sin. Rather, it is a kind of sin—it is the sort of sin that leads to death. With Nadab and Abihu, it was their presumption in taking the priest’s office and entering the Holy of Holies. In the case of Achan it was covetousness. Ananias and Sapphira were guilty of hypocrisy and even of lying to the Holy Spirit. If a Christian sees a brother committing sin, he should pray for him (1 John 5: 16), asking that he confess his sin and return to fellowship with the Father. But if in his praying, he does not sense that he is asking in God’s will (as instructed in 1 John 5: 14–15), then he should not pray for the brother. “Therefore, pray not thou for this people, neither lift up cry nor prayer for them, neither make intercession to me: for I will not hear thee” (Jer. 7: 16).” (Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Real (1 John): Turning from Hypocrisy to Truth, 180-181 (Kindle Edition); Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook)

Wiersbe makes some excellent points here! There are times when sin can lead to physical death. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of this is seen and shown in 1 Corinthians, where some of the Christians were physically sick and dying because of sin:

1 Corinthians 11:30-32-For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. 31  For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. 32  But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.

Here, the physical suffering and even physical death were for the express purpose of saving the souls of the Christians who had apostatized. God can use physical suffering for the sanctification and salvation of Christians.

Yet if this is what John is saying in our text, why does he forbid prayer on behalf of the Christians who is sinning a sin unto death? Should we not pray all the more earnestly for a Christian who is sinning and refusing to repent? Doesn’t Jesus teach us to pray even for our enemies (Matthew 5:44-45), much less our brothers and sisters in Christ (Colossians 4:2)?

Another possibility is that the brethren in this passage who are sinning sin unto death is discussing Christians who have publicly left the faith and apostatized. Guy N. Woods makes a powerful caste for this interpretation:

“To what kind of sin does the apostle refer? John wrote much about sin and forgiveness in the first of his Epistles. Sin, alas, is in the lives of us all (1 John 1: 8-10); it originates with the devil (3: 8); Jesus died in order that forgiveness might be possible (3: 16); when, through weakness, ignorance and inadvertence we sin, he is our “advocate” (heavenly lawyer), who intercedes in our behalf (1 John 2: 1); and his blood cleanses us, as we walk in the light, from all sin (1 John 1: 7). He has promised that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1: 8). The teaching on these matters, by the beloved disciple, is abundant and its significance clear. It is possible to reduce it to the following logical form: (1) The Lord will forgive every sin, of whatever nature, from which a brother turns in penitence and confesses. (1 John 1: 8). (2) There is a sin, however, which the Lord will not forgive. (1 John 5: 16). (3) Therefore, the sin which the Lord will not forgive is a sin, any sin, every sin, all sin, that a brother will not confess. If the proposition is valid, and the premises are true, the conclusion is irresistible. The proposition meets the requirements of validity; and the premises are obvious, being stated virtually in the words of the inspired text. Inasmuch then as the proposition is a valid one and the premises are true; and, since the Lord will forgive every sin which a brother confesses, and there is a sin which the Lord will not forgive, the sin which the Lord will not forgive is a sin which a brother will not confess.” (Guy N. Woods, Questions and Answers (Open Forum Questions Book 1), 3608-3622 (Kindle Edition); Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University)

Whichever interpretation one takes of this passage, three things should be kept in mind.

First, the problem in the passage is that the “sin unto death” is sin which a Christian keeps on committing and does not repent of. Some teach that God only sins of ignorance, not realizing that the Bible teaches that God forgives even the worst and most terrible transgressions a person commits, upon repentance and obedience to His Word (cf. Ezekiel 18:23; 1 Timothy 2:4-6).

Second, the passage is not forbidding prayer on behalf of the brother who is sinning unto death. John does not forbid such; he merely reiterates that he doesn’t commend prayer in those circumstances.

Third, the sin unto death is not an unwillingness of God to forgive: it is based on mankind’s response to sin.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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